Husband & Wife Articles



‘Work-Spouse’ Warning Signs

by Mike Aquilina

Men and women have been sharing the workplace on increasingly equal terms since World War II. Most people agree that this is a good thing, giving women a new degree of vocational freedom.

Yet it’s not without its dangers. And I saw warning lights flashing when I read an article in USA Today about “work-spouses.”

I had never heard the phrase, but I recognized the phenomenon immediately. A work-spouse is a co-worker of the opposite sex who is a particularly close friend. Through banter over the cubicle wall or in the lunchroom, she’s managed to learn a lot about you. She knows your birthday, your favorite foods, the kind of car you dream of owning some day. In some ways, she knows you better than your wife does, and it’s only natural since she shares your company for more waking hours per week and she sees you in professional situations your wife might not understand or value.

It all seems harmless, since the relationship is platonic.

But it’s not. It’s a minefield. It’s what spiritual writers traditionally call a “particular friendship” — an undue affection, an inappropriate intimacy.

You don’t even have to be Catholic to see the danger here. The folks in the human resources department know all about it. The phenomenon of the “work-spouse” is regularly treated in their professional journals. Why? Because it upsets the workplace dynamic, leading to accusations of favoritism. It erodes team spirit by isolating two members in a subgroup.

But perhaps the greatest danger — for the employer — is that work-spouse relationships sometimes (perhaps often) end badly. And when they end, they produce the sort of lingering hostility that’s often found between former friends, or between ex-spouses.

At that point, an angry former “work-wife” might go over conversations (and maybe e-mails) and find instances that surely qualify as harassment. The evidence will be there, since close male-female friendships often skirt the edges of flirtation, and such pleasantries can become unwelcome in retrospect, even if they were welcome when they were spoken.

Harassment is not a blot you want on your record. It can be a career killer.

Nor is it something you want to try to explain to your wife. Let’s say you were completely innocent, everything was completely platonic, and you never intended for a co-worker to take your wife’s place in your heart.

Even so, is it right for you to cause scandal, making others wonder if you’re really faithful? Is it right for you to expose your wife to humiliation as you leave yourself vulnerable to gossip? Is it right for you to make her struggle with unnecessary and unwanted suspicions? Can such thoughts possibly be good for your marriage?

And think about your co-worker. What if her feelings are stronger than she’s letting on? Do you want to be responsible for leading her into a sinful attraction to a married man?

If you think I’m imagining or exaggerating any of this, you’re naïve. I’ve seen it happen, and more than twice or thrice. It always has consequences: in the worst case, a lost job or damaged marriage; in almost every case, residual weirdness in the office.

Spiritual writers counsel us to keep seven locks on our hearts. Our wives should hold the key ring, even when we go off to work. And there should be no spare set!

Mike Aquilina is husband to Terri, father to six children, and executive vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is author of more than 30 books and co-host of eight series on EWTN.